Review of of 'If I Could Tell You' by Soumya Bhattacharya.
There never was a good biography of a good novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes in his Notebooks (1978), before going on to add: There couldn’t be. He is too many people if he’s any good. And a clever reader can see the basis of what he has in mind.
The 'novelist' in this slim and compact volume is fictitious but he is also archetypal of the doomed writer and, 31 years after Fitzgerald made that pronouncement, Soumya Bhattacharya has impishly proved the master wrong. Now published in paperback by Speaking Tiger Books a month back, If I Could Tell You opens with the birth of the gentleman's baby daughter and, through a series of letters he pens to her older self, tells the story of what, for a while, strikes us as his conspicuously unremarkable life. Is it the reason why the narrator can't find a publisher? After all, we story ourselves and we are our stories. But appearances can be deceiving.
The letters are written in the first person. Unlike traditional, native-language novels, they aren’t polyphonic; there aren’t too many characters or voices. The pace of this unassuming narrative is sustained by the slow, looping trips it takes in time and space, both in the form of travel and flashback, its exact and frequently picturesque descriptions of city neighbourhoods (London, Mumbai, Kolkata) and moments, wry depictions of Bengaliyana (the school admission obstacle race, the administration’s odd penchant of getting spellings wrong regardless of language, the officious cop at traffic signals and the manic fish market) and the rich flow of the inner life of the narrator.
The language is lyrical, suffused with an abundance of love, for the free-spirited daughter, for the wife, who is also a kindred soul and friend, for his gods from the world of letters who are referenced at regular intervals, for writing and for life itself, and yet it is spare and lean, suggestive of tension and imbued with an undefined pain.
“The beets are done. Your mother was tossing them all into a pot. They landed with clangs – and then muted thuds as the pile began to grow.” p.53.
The author invites the reader to muse with the narrator on his metafictional observations, on the joys and responsibilities of fatherhood (which is underrated compared to motherhood in our culture) and on the nature of grief (do the young, for instance, feel sorrow more intensely because their emotions are unmixed and hence purer, but also cope better with bereavement seeing as they have the advantage of time and the scope to undo most of its damage?) The last may seem particularly interesting to readers in post-pandemic times.
The denouement, when it comes, rushes in with the force of an express train. It answers the question that has formed by now in the mind of the reader, either inchoate or unspoken, and that is, what does it take to be a writer? Charles Bukowski, too, answers it in a letter to his friend, the poet William Packard, dated December 23, 1990, wherein he says: Too many writers write for the wrong reasons. They want to get famous or they want to get rich or they want to get laid by the girls with bluebells in their hair... When everything works best it's not because you chose writing but because writing chose you.
In times such as these when there are too many writers, too few readers and an industry rigged to favour the politics of privilege, it is heartening to read a book that successfully celebrates the magic of writing.
If I Could Tell You
By Soumya Bhattacharya
pp. 200, Rs.399